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'Morality has disappeared from India'

Last updated on: February 02, 2007 13:31 IST
He fought in two major campaigns in World War II.

After Independence, his division was 'two-and-a-half km from Sialkot when the ceasefire whistle blew in (the second India-Pakistan war) 1965.' And in 1971, he faced enemy fire again when he was asked to clear one of the three sectors into which East Pakistan had been marked out by India's Eastern Command.

Described by many of his subordinates and military analysts as a 'thinking man's general', Lieutenant General M L Thapan, PVSM, lives in a small apartment in Delhi's Som Vihar area.

His 89 years (he was born in 1918, in Lakhimpur Kheri, now in Uttar Pradesh) sit easily on him. Firmly convinced that India had "no business" getting involved in Bangladesh in 1971 nor in Sri Lanka in 1987, General Thapan explains why in an exclusive interview to Deputy Managing Editor Ramananda Sengupta.

The 1971 War: 35 Years On

What role did you play in the 1971 war?

General ML Thapan PVSMI had a part to play in that war, which was the clearance of a part of the area of East Pakistan, as it then was called, west of the Brahmaputra, and north of the Ganga. The rest of it was for other forces. There were two other Corps, 2 Corps and 4 Corps, involved. The larger part of Bangladesh was being covered by them. So I can't say that I had any other part in this except as a combined effort.

The trouble is you can always have hindsight which tend to cloud the views you had at that time. It is very difficult now to differentiate between the two.

But I had an inkling once this thing was going on, or before it even started, which was reinforced subsequently, that it was a great mistake for us to get involved in Bangladesh or East Pakistan.

When the country was divided in 1947, the people of East Bengal decided to opt for East Pakistan. That was a decision taken by them, and 25 years later, they found that the authorities in West Pakistan were not favorably disposed towards the east.

Anyway, they had of their own accord joined the western part of Pakistan. So I saw no reason why we should have interfered in their problems. They brought it upon themselves.

To put it crudely, they should have stewed in their own juice. That was the one thing I felt. Subsequently, the events after the liberation, and after the death of Mujib (Bangladesh's first president Mujibur Rehman), particularly, have reinforced these views.

The other aspect is if we had left things alone, today Pakistan would again have been divided into two parts with India in between. That would have been a great administrative problem for them.

For us it would have been a great advantage to have the Pakistani armed forces divided between the two halves, which strategically would result in their having to look after two fronts.

The present situation in Bangladesh is obviously unfavourable to us. It is still the same. So we have gained nothing in the bargain.

What about the humanitarian aspect?

This humanitarian aspect can be seen in different forms. You can't go in to defend or to liberate somebody who is another country just because he or she is being ill-treated. It was their problem, not ours. We've got enough problems of our own.

What about the humanitarian problems in our own country? Who the hell bothers about those?

Our politicians don't. They are busy making money.

The humanitarian aspect was not a major factor in this case either. The same argument, as subsequent events proved, applied in Sri Lanka.

We should never have gone into Sri Lanka. We had no business to go into Sri Lanka. It is another country. What business do we have to poke our nose in, just because there are a large number of Tamils living there, who have been citizens of that country for generations?

There are a large number of Indians now living in the UK. If they are ill-treated, are we going to go into the UK? This argument can go on endlessly. I think we should first try and put our own house in order and then keep it in order, and not bother about other people's houses.

Is Bangladesh grateful for our help? Why is there is a distinct anti-Indian attitude in Dhaka?

Ingratitude, whether it is in the private sphere or the public sphere, is not unexpected. You may wish for gratitude, but you won't get it.

As for the anti-Indian feeling, that is being whipped up by all the fundamentalists in Bangladesh, who were there at that time too but stayed subdued. Of course, they are now being egged on by the ISI in Pakistan.

The Bangladeshi intrusion: complete coverage

In 1971, when the Pakistani army laid down its arms, the people were certainly grateful to the Indian army. Mujib was conscious of the role played by the Indian army in the so-called liberation of his country. But I don't think anybody after him has been interested.

A lot of the people involved in the anti-Indian feeling are the Bangladesh army officers who had served in Pakistan. Zia (Zia-ur Rahman, the military ruler of Bangladesh from April 1977 to May 1981, whose wife Khaleda Zia was prime minister until last November) had served in the Pakistan army.

So Zia and the rest of his tribe, they were also partly responsible for this. It is very strange, because those Bengali officers who had left west Pakistan to help in the fight against the Pakistan army in the east, for instance General Osmani, were different people altogether.

I also interacted with a Bengali officer in the Pakistan Air Force, and he too was anti-Pakistan. But the anti-Indian feeling I am afraid, is being fostered not just by the ISI, but more so by the Bangladeshis themselves.

The conditions in East Pakistan were such that no Bengali, whatever views he held, could say that the treatment they were receiving, was something that they could look forward to.

Some Bangladeshis say if they had stayed on with Pakistan, they too would have been a nuclear power now?

What rubbish! This nuclear thing is blown out of total proportion. What do people want now? It's what Zulfiqar Bhutto used to talk about: Roti, kapda aur makaan.

A former commander-in-chief of the Pakistani army, a Pathan officer, a very good chap, Gul Hasan, I think his name is, is very blunt in his book. How did Bangladesh break off from Pakistan? Because we West Pakistanis have treated the East as a colonial power would treat its subject, he says.

He is the only Pakistani officer that I know of who has been very forthright about it. And he is dead right. They were treated like colonial subjects.

I remember after the Liberation, we went to Rangpur, one of the districts, where we reinstalled the deputy commissioner. He was grateful that we had given him back his old assignment.

When I asked him what things were like before we came, he said there used to be a brigade headquarters in Rangpur. And he would be sent for, by the lowest staff officer in the brigade headquarters, and he would have to comply, and he would then be told what to do. He had no option. So he was hardly a deputy commissioner in the true sense of the word.

It is strange, even the attitude of some Bengali officers of the Pakistan army was one of authority. I recall one of my divisional commanders telling me in that area, Rajshahi, I think, a young Bangladesh army captain used to herd civilians around. This is shortly after the Liberation. So he was still acting like a West Pakistani. I think it was force of habit.

What about the various wings, with the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force saying the war could not have been won without their specific role?

This kind of war today is a combined effort. No single service or individual can claim he was the victor. We are all partners in that.

The navy did a very fine job. Our air force did a wonderful job. The army did a very good job. You can't allocate points as in a competition and say so many points were scored by a, b or c.

I have the highest admiration for our navy and our air force. In our sector, in the 1971 war, all the air opposition had been eliminated because conditions in West Pakistan ensured that they could not reinforce the east, and it was our air force that made sure that the Pakistan air force was eliminated in the east.

After that, our pilots were flying five programmed sorties a day, and then asking for more targets. Now that kind of cooperation between the army and the air force is something I have not experienced before.

I was commanding a division in the 1965 war. In that war, it is not that nobody wanted to help, it is just that the damn thing was so badly organised.

So no one individual can lay a claim to anything. For instance, I notice that Admiral Nanda's book -- which I haven't read -- is titled The Man Who Bombed Karachi, which I think is wholly misleading. I think the Indian Air Force too had a role to play in that Karachi business.

'Karachi burned for seven days'

In 1971, our forces paid with lives to help liberate Bangladesh. In April 2001, New Delhi was seen as passive after 15 BSF men were killed and strung up like animals by the Bangladesh Rifles. What has changed over the years?

The Bangladeshi Intrusion

You are getting into the realm of government policies. You take this business of why we went into Bangladesh in 1971. You had a government in India led by Mrs (Indira) Gandhi. What were her compulsions to go into Bangladesh I don't know.

The ostensible reason given was that there were a large number of refugees had come into India from Bangladesh. Now whether that is sufficient justification to go to war I don't know. Because today there are more illegal immigrants from Bangladesh than there were at that point of time.

So if that was the reason, then there is that much more reason for us to go in again long ago. In our country, with the kind of politicians we have, we take everything lying down. Then there was that incident with the BSF, horrible. But look at the character of the people who are running this country.

So was Mrs Gandhi a strong leader?

She was strong enough to take that kind of decision. But many times she took the wrong decisions. She made some terrible mistakes. The Punjab thing was just horrible, and she did it for purely selfish reasons. You see they all want to stick to power. So they must get votes. They must have some kind of justification.

Look what is happening with all this nonsense with the caste and community and things. It is all because of getting votes.

The British divided India into two parts, if we carry on like this, these blighters will divide India into 50 different parts. Someone in the minorities commission, he said this once, but was told to shut up thereafter. He belonged to one of the classes which was affected. But he was a sensible man and had enough courage to say this after his experience in that commission.

He said the only answer to this whole business is to abolish caste, say it will not be referred to at all in any form. In which case then we are all Indians.

Are we a superpower yet?

When we talk of superpower, in what form? Who is responsible for it? Certainly, not the government, or any government in the past. It is the initiative taken by private sector. You could call it the lure of making money, business, perhaps the fact that initiative is given full play in the private sector, which is not the case in the public sector.

Those people have put India on the world map as far as the economy of this country is concerned. It is all because of their efforts.

I do agree that in the 1980s, when government restrictions were removed, you could give that credit to whoever was the politician then. Whether he did for selfish motives or other motives is a different matter.

But when those restrictions were removed, it was then that the gates were really opened up for industry. That is what is making us an economic world power.

Militarily we are not a world power. We haven't programmed ourselves for being a world power. Our defence is programmed only for the defence of our own country.

Are we uncomfortable with power?

Militarily, in our country it is only to handle the threats that we face. I don't think we have any aggressive designs against anybody.

The only time that we misused it was in Sri Lanka, and that too at the invitation of that old Fox (then Sri Lankan president Junius Richard Jayawardene), who lured the young and inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi into this pact because he was facing problems, and he thought the Indians would help him out that.

The Indians did, but then got into difficulties themselves. We should have said you stew in your own juice. This argument about the linkage between the Tamils of Sri Lanka and India... how far can you carry this nonsense?India's Vietnam

Did the 1971 war give India a much needed shot of military confidence?

It was propaganda. Indira Gandhi's image went up. You had all these fellows patting themselves and each other on the back. I have a different view. As a young officer, when I had barely three years of service, just before World War II, when the Japanese invaded Burma. I served in the Burma campaign, and we had to walk the length of Burma.

And I thought then that it is a ghastly business, this war. And we felt humiliated that the Japanese had literally walked into that country, and we were not able to defend it, for various reasons. The following year, in 1943, I was there for the first Arakan campaign. There again, it was too little, too late. We had too little resources.

We were being pushed by political forces who wanted something to be done. Because there were messes all round in the Second World war, in Africa, and in France it had already collapsed. So we were involved in the second withdrawal in the Arakan.

That told me that in this kind of war, unless you have complete preparations, it is pointless fooling around with inadequate resources pretending that you are getting somewhere or the other.

Then China, where I was not involved, in 1962, was a disgrace. Again, we can blame our own people. (Then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, (then defence minister V K Krishna Menon. Menon most of all, Nehru for being naive and ingenuous. These chaps had closed minds.

As far as the defence sector was concerned, he (Nehru) said there is no need for a defence sector. He said we are a peace loving country. All our neighbours too are supposedly peace loving. So we don't need you. So when you have that kind of a man ruling a country, in self delusion...

I think it was (India's second President Dr (Sarvepalli) Radhakrishnan, who later made the point that this man was living in a world of his own. And he listened to odd-balls like Krishna Menon.

40 Years After: The 1962 war

When you look at the army's recent involvement in various scams and fake encounters, how does it make you feel?

Very sad that this is happening. But let me put it another way. The army is very large now, much larger than it was in my days. When you expand beyond a certain figure, a dilution takes place. I think the dilution has taken place, and everything has gone for a six in the process.

Discipline is not the same as it was in our days. The approach to your profession is not quite the same. The approach now is career prospects. Everyone wants to climb to the top of the ladder. This is not possible in the army, unlike in civil life.

The army organisation is referred to as a pyramid, but actually it is more like a pagoda. Unlike the pyramid, which is very narrow at the top, the pagoda is fairly well proportioned at the top. So that is one reason for the change. It saddens me when I see incidents of this kind.

How does it affect the image of the army?

What about the image of the rest of the people? In the government?

Why assume that the army will stay clear of it? After all, we are all part of the same system, the same country, the same culture. It is like water, which finds its own level. At some point of time, a stop will have to be put to it. It will be force of circumstances.

I used to write a military column for nearly 21 years for The Statesman, Calcutta. But when their previous editor asked me to resume last year, I said I am now 89 years of age. The hand doesn't move as well as it should. I don't have any facilities here.

I am computer illiterate. My typewriting is slower than my handwriting. How do I write anything? But the thing that I have been wanting to write about is a moral revolution.

Morality is a word that has disappeared from the Indian vocabulary. So you need a moral re-armament programme. But who is to give that?

There is no accountability in this country at all. You can get away with anything. When that happens... the younger generation, who does it learn from? Only from their superiors. If their superiors are in that game, then the younger generation has no choice. It is very sad.

Any message for the younger generation?

I am not a message deliverer. 1971 is only a small part of my life. The key word is morality. Society has built up certain unwritten norms. If you don't observe them, society breaks up.

Why was Moses' 10 Commandments written? They were all written because people wanted to see some sort of order was observed in society. Otherwise, you might as well live like animals in the jungle. So we are now more or less reverting to type.